Thursday, 16 December 2010

Dead rubber dull draw

Liverpool's final Europa League group stage match ended in a dull 0-0 bore draw as the Reds' youngsters and squad players failed to break down a resolute Utrecht defence.

With Liverpool already guaranteed top spot in Group K and Utrecht unable to qualify for the next round neither side placed any significance on the outcome of this match. However, it was hoped that this would relieve pressure from the contest and lead to an enjoyable, open match. Disappointingly the opposite occurred as the Dutch visitors showed little ambition while Hodgson's side lacked the attacking ability to break them down.

It was a night for youngsters both on and off the pitch as 8500 under 17's watched 19-year old Nathan Eccleston make his Anfield debut alongside Martin Kelly, Jonjo Shelvey and Danny Wilson free of charge as our new American owners encouraged the younger generation to taste the magical Anfield experience on a European night.

Unfortunately they had little to get excited about during a dreary first half as Utrecht decided to sit deep and Liverpool were more than happy to let them keep the ball in their own half as Hodgson's troops sat deep and failed to pressurise the opposition for the umpteenth time this season.

The match nearly got off to a disastrous start for Liverpool when Kelly's weak and misplaced pass sent Ricky Van Wolfswinkel through on goal after only three minutes had been played. To the Reds' relief captain for the night Martin Skrtel made a fine recovery challenge to deny the dangerous Dutch forward.

Milan Jovanovic then went close for the home side as he purposefully powered past several Utrecht defenders before crashing a fantastic shot against the cross bar from 30 yards out. It was a brilliant run and strike from the Serb however he and the rest of the Liverpool midfield failed to fashion similar opportunities throughout an underwhelming first half of uninspiring football.

After 20 minutes Van Wolfswinkel drifted into space inside the box but his shot was well blocked by Danny Wilson as he went to pull the trigger. After making an important intervention at the one end Wilson almost had an impact at the other end of the pitch as well when he headed Shelvey's left wing corner over the bar at the near post just two minutes later.

The game then proceeded with little goalmouth action or anything to write home about. Babel's right-footed effort was blocked by a defender just past the half hour mark and Brad Jones, deputising for Pepe Reina in goal, was called upon to punch away under pressure shortly after however apart from that the half ended with a whimper.

In fact, the only note-worthy event was the injury to Utrecht's main threat Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, who was stretchered off the pitch after picking up a serious injury in an innocuous aerial challenge with Wilson minutes before the break.

Utrecht started the second half the brighter side and had a couple of sights of goal, however they failed to seriously threaten Liverpool's backline as Mertens' 20-yard strike was easily gathered by Jones before de Kogel (literally translated 'the bullet') blazed a shot high into the Kop under pressure from Danny Wilson.

On 55 minutes Babel dragged a shot across the face of the goal and disappointingly wide after Aurelio's long clearance had turned into a good pass for the Dutchman. A minute later Daniel Pacheco replaced the enthusiastic but unproductive Nathan Eccleston and immediately livened up Liverpool's play. The diminutive Spaniard's first touch was a sublime through ball for Ryan Babel but unfortunately his cross couldn't find a Red shirt in the centre of the box.

The hosts then had their best passage of play three minutes later when Jovanovic cleverly turned away from two defenders before spreading the play out to the advancing Martin Kelly down the right hand side. His powerful cross perilously screamed across the face of the goal and narrowly evaded Babel in the middle as the Reds finally showed some semblance of attacking intent.

The previously anonymous Joe Cole was also getting involved in the action as his clever pass freed Fabio Aurelio inside the box on the hour mark only for the Brazilian to cannon an effort against Wuytens before Cole attempted another incisive pass to put Ryan Babel clear on goal, however Vorm was off his line quickly to sweep up the danger.

By this stage the game had finally opened up and even began to develop an end-to-end feel to it. With half an hour remaining De Kogel fashioned space for himself on the edge of the box and stung Jones' palms with a powerful strike that the Australian stand-in keeper did well to stop.

Vorm then made a comfortable save from Pacheco's low 20-yard shot before Mertens sped dangerously towards goal for the Eredivise side. Fortunately for Liverpool he made the wrong decision to pass at the crucial moment when he should have instead continued forward. His pass was intended for De Kogel but Wilson vitally cut it out and the chance had gone.

The game then experienced a lull as neither side built on the momentum developed, leaving the respective sets of supporters to provide the main entertainment, with the capacity away end singing a Dutch version of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" seemingly incessantly.

Those fans were even more raucous when Utrecht legend and current Liverpool star Dirk Kuyt replaced Milan Jovanovic. Kuyt spent five years at the Dutch outfit earlier in his career, scoring a respectable 67 goals and earning the admiration of the noisy Utrecht supporters in the process.

After 83 minutes Aurelio's brilliant left wing cross was feebly half-cleared by Keller and the ball landed at the feet of Joe Cole. The Englishman shot goalwards from close range however he was denied by a fine block from Keller as the Dutch defender recovered well to keep the game goalless.

An audacious long-range effort from Leon de Kogel then went high into the Kop before the Reds had one final opportunity to break the deadlock and grab a late winner with only a minute of the allotted 90 left.

Liverpool had a free kick in a good position after Cole had been brought down right on the edge of the box, however it was wasted when Cole smashed the ball into a near-by defender after Jonjo Shelvey had laid the ball off for the London lad. Thankfully the ball broke to the left where Aurelio delivered the ball back into the box. It fell for Cole in a great position however he couldn't adjust his body quickly enough to reach the ball and send it past goalkeeper Michel Vorm at the near post.

Although the outcome of this match has no bearing whatsoever on our European campaign this was still another disappointing match for Hodgson's team as they squandered the perfect opportunity to develop confidence by racking up a few goals against a mediocre side with little European pedigree.

While the large number of changes to the line-up may explain the failure to form a cohesive unit, the lack of attacking desire and forward thinking football cannot be so easily explained. It may have little effect during a dead-rubber European tie however this docile and weak performance could be translated into our upcoming Premier League fixtures.

The manager's job now is to reverse this negative attitude with a convincing victory at home to Fulham this Saturday in order to build up momentum ahead of a vital Christmas period.

Unsurprisingly I cannot see Hodgson doing that as he prepares to face his former employers this weekend.


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